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  • Humor in the Lyrical Stories for Children of Samuel Marshak and Korney Chukovsky
  • Andreas Bode (bio)

The literary scholar is seized by a kind of culture shock when he discovers that the authors of his native tongue for whom he has high regard and whom he considers as world classic writers are not highly rated abroad, and may even be completely unknown. In turn, there may be classic writers in other languages of whom he has a completely distorted image because he knows only a part of their works. Not knowing the Russian language, he may consider Pushkin, for instance, as the author of original stories, and perhaps even know that he wrote the libretto for the operetta "Eugene Onegin." But he will not be likely to realize the essential significance that Pushkin's epic poem, which served as the basis for the opera, also had for the language and literature of Russia. Naturally it is the lyrical works which suffer more than all others in the literary transfer process. Even if there are a number of well-intended English translations of Pushkin's poems, the reader will at best only be able to infer that Pushkin is one of the great lyricists of world literature.

The situation is none the better for the two Russian poets Marshak and Chukovsky, just because they wrote mainly for children. While the intellectual substance of their poems may be easier to grasp and to translate, it will never be possible even to begin to reproduce either the special wealth of Russian sounds or the allusions that result directly from the use of sound consonance. And it is precisely at the linguistic level, rather than the literal level, that a significant portion of the humor of both these poets is to be found. The humorous story-line, which could as easily be told in prose, is comparatively simple in many of their poems.

The improbability that Marshak's and Chukovsky's poems for children will ever achieve greater significance in English is particularly regrettable, since both writers had a very close relationship to the English language and its literature. Not only did they translate important British and American writers into Russian, but they were also notably influenced by certain popular English poems—in particular, by their grotesque and absurdist elements. [End Page 34]

Marshak travelled in 1912 to London to study English literature. By 1915 his first translation from English was published, and he eventually translated the work of William Blake, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, even Shakespeare's sonnets, thus becoming one of the most important mediators of English poetry. Marshak also translated a series of popular English poems for children, and his own first book for children was a Russian adaptation of "The House that Jack Built" (Dom, kotoryj postroil Džek, 1924).

Chukovsky first learned English on his own. He was then sent to London as a correspondent for the newspaper "Odesskie novosti" in 1903, and there he also began to report on English literature. He thus worked from the very beginning of his writing career as a literary critic, a craft he continued to practice until his death. One of his most important pieces dealt with Whitman, whose work he introduced to the Russian reader. Like Marshak, he translated many English works into Russian, but specialized in prose (Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton, A. C. Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and others). His treatment of Hugh Loftings "Dr. Doolittle" (Doktor Ajbolif) became a classic work for Russian children as a result of his clever abridgments of the very expansive stories and his successful adaption of Lofting's characters to a Russian setting. While he translated much less for children than did Marshak, the influence of popular English literature on his own works was the more enduring, as will be shown.

Samuel Marshak (1887-1964) is considered by many to be—along with Vladimir Mayakovsky—the founder of Soviet children's literature. One can rightfully say that he was a foster child of Maxim Gorki. Their relationship began in 1901, when Gorki secured a place in a Yalta boarding school for the high school aged boy.

It is well known that Gorki...


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